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Side by SideImage by Dust Mason via FlickrThree times a year the nation grinds to a halt, this is a collective act which binds the fragile Israeli national identity through nationalist ceremonies. The Siren goes off, echoing eerily through the noisy, soon to be quite, streets. I always make sure to be in the street when this happens, the world slowly grinds to halt and, whether in earnest or due to social pressure, we look inwards. I, for one, recount my experiences as a child sitting, terrified, in an empty bathtub wearing a gas mask as men in uniform trace missiles crashing over cities in Israel through our black & white TV. The Iraqi Scuds, no more than flying dustbins, ground the nation to a halt and turned everyone’s nerves to shambles.

Alerting citizens of danger took many forms in Israel. In the bombed out town of Sderot, citizens have been running for shelter, for their lives, when hearing the “Zeva Adom” (צבע אדום) alert. I recently read a moving piece about an unemployed PC technician, Yaacov is his name, who smashed his knee when sheltering his children as they ran to safety from a missile attack from Gaza. Yaacov, however, is lucky. He was alerted of need for shelter, not so, the citizens Ashkelon who were surprised to find a missile crash into the shopping mall they were in, resulting in 30 severely injured people, babies included. Here, the siren did not work.

I have posted a video showing one of those Qassam missile crash down in Israel from Gaza below, its quite impressive in my opinion:

In the agricultural area around the Gaza strip (just to put things into context, if unfamiliar with the messed up Arab\Palestinian – Israeli conflict click here) farmers receive SMS messages alerting them of of missile barrages or mortar shelling. Puts a whole new perspective on an SMS, doesn’t it?

So siren’s depending on context, in Israel, mean different things at different times, as do SMSs. Two cuts of the population who are outside of this debate are the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, not as a whole, and a large percent and the Arab \ Palestinian Israelis. The Ultra Orthodox, of the sect which sees the foundation of Israel as a theological mistake, do not respect the siren during memorial, Independence and Holocaust day, but rather, go about their regular business. This custom has created a significant alienation of this population from the traditional and secular Jewish population. Additionally, the Ultra-Orthdox Jews (particularly of Ashkenazi origin) ban almost all modes of telecommunications, except of fixed line telephony. Despite their distain for the State of Israel, during the Gulf War (the first one) I fondly remember gas masks that had a beard fitting, fitting for your friendly Ultra-Orthdox pal from next door.

Also complex is the standing of the Arab – Israelis (I will stick to that term, and yes I know that some may disapprove). An ethnic and religious minority within Israel, they were on the defeated side of the 1948 war and were partly expelled, partly told to flee and mainly scared out of their minds of being caught between 6 Arab armies from different countries and Jewish troops battling out on the disputed Holy, soon to be deadly, Land. The Arabs that remained within the borders of the newly founded Jewish state, my beloved Israel, had it tough. Until the 60s they lived under military curfew and have fared poorly in terms of equality and political representation since. Most of the Arab – Israelis, consider the Jewish state their tragedy (it’s called the Naqba يوم النكبة).

During the latest Lebanese – Israeli war (2006), Hizbulla, a paramilitary \ terrorist army, existing in Lebanon fired thousands of missiles into Israel targeting Jewish civilians and towns. This is a shocking, racist and genocidal military strategy – targeting: (a) civilians, (b) people based on their ethnicity. The State of Israel, a generally well behaved democracy, showed a rather ugly side of the inequality the Arabs within Israel encounter: Arab towns had no sirens during, before or after the war. And while Hizbulla targeted Jews in Israel, the State itself reinforced this by separating the operational structure of state emergency broadcasting services based, again, on ethnicity.

Arabs in Israel generally feel isolated from the state (some explain this via the term Ethnocracy + Ethnicity + Democracy). Consequently, many Arabs find cultural refuge in all non-Israeli content, this includes the Al Jazeera TV channel, general Arabic websites (it also helps that Arabic is one of the 6 UN official languages). And so, almost all general broadcasting that the State has ownership over (sirens, websites, publications) are dubbed irrelevant by a public that is 20% of the total Israeli population.

But, on a more personal note, there is a general sense of resentment towards state sponsored activities. Israel is experiencing, like many other countries a crisis of morals and solidarity over the privatization of many public functions – including multiple social functions, such a welfare services and the cutting of subsidies for children, the privatization of the national telecoms carrier – Bezeq. These trends lead to an alienation of the public, religious, Arab or secular. The pride of Israel, its solidarity has been eroded through a process of privatization. The siren, echoing through the still streets blast over our collective souls, the sleeping homeless, the bombed out residents of the Southern Negev and the crying children abandoned by the state in abusive families due to cutbacks in welfare budgets. Quoting a blog, quoting advocate Ya’akov Weinrot:

The most scathing indictment of Israel at 60 (on the Zionist-Israeli side that is) must come from Advocate Ya’akov Weinrot, paradoxically an ultra-successful advocate of the rich and famous, whose clients have included Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu and billionaire/politician Arkady Gydamak. Surprisingly, Weinrot, who , it turns out, in his youth both studied in yeshivas and was a Marxist, spent most of his Ha’aretz interview bemoaning the rampant Thatcherization of Israel and the loss of all values and ideology to the destructive god of the free market. Here are a few extracts from a man who rubs shoulders with the real movers and shakers of Israeli society:

The kibbutz movement was cast aside because it was a central obstacle to the Golden calf, to the god of finance, to Dionysus who has turned into the real god. … I am sure that the big ideas like equality, like comradeship, like solidarity, are ideas that cannot die, they are ideas that need to rise anew. The idea of equality will arise. The idea of equality must arise…. Thatcherism sees the free market as the main thing, the foundationof all foundations, the God of all gods. Not only does it erase all other values, it conquers the queen at home…. There is no government any more. Capital is the government. Capital rules the entire expanse of experience, it flows through all the hidden veins of society….Here there are about 10-15 families controlling about 55% of all resources. In such a situation, do you really think that decisions are made in the government complex?(full interview here).

This explains why the government didn’t declare a state of war during the 2006 war with Lebanon – they were afraid of damaging Israel’s credit rating. With a rationale like that, no wonder the siren seems to emit more of a mocking sound than one one which makes you ponder our national tragedies – they are actually closer to home than we think – our government, today, is the greatest threat to Israel itself.